by Rahul KumarFeb 01, 2023
The newly reoriented Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna opened its inaugural exhibition, Hungry For Time, on October 9, 2021, curated by New Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective (Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta). By interlacing artworks from the Academy's collection with a wide range of contemporary art practices, the exhibition foregrounds the premise of 'epistemic disobedience'. STIR speaks with the members of Raqs Media Collective about how the acts of disobedience curatorially unfolded in the making of the exhibition.
Srinivas Aditya Mopidevi (SAM): Raqs’ curatorial premise for the Hungry for Time exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna calls in for acts of ‘epistemic disobedience,’ a process that advocates for a de-linking from the impending baggage of colonialism on art and culture. Such a premise becomes even more fascinating in light of the Academy’s recent reorientation of its collection to discursively disentangle from its colonial past. Can you elaborate on how ‘epistemic disobedience’ unfolded as acts in Hungry for Time?
Raqs Media Collective (RMC): We frame it as an invitation to an epistemic disobedience in the collection with us. We frame it this way because the question of both ‘epistemic’ and ‘disobedience’, and the two together, can come into motion at a collective moment of rethinking the world, drawing in both the individual experiential, and the planetary. The concept comes to us via Walter Mignolo, and he says that to him it comes from a 1991 essay by the Peruvian sociologist and thinker, Aníbal Quijiano. To us this relay is important to keep in movement. Epistemic disobedience seeks to call into question the way in which things are settled through a combination of taste and violence, and become almost invisible as habit. ‘De-habiting’ is always possible, but needs a devising of procedures to activate. The scale here, again, could be minor or seismic.
The exhibition stages collisions between works that have discursively embodied a claim to the mastery of the world with works that draw in scepticism towards claims to power. A large still life oil painting by Jan van der Heyden, the 17th century Dutch painter, features a globe, rugs, and exotic objects from distant lands, and a cockatoo. This image is a collection of devices for knowing, for domesticating a wild bird, for conquering knowledge of the world, and for claiming mastery. When confronted by the opacity of a knot of the archive (Dayanita Singh) and an investigation by the Discursive Justice Ensemble underlining the instability and risk attendant to the moving of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch by a few meters, a tremor is uncovered. Infrastructural immovability can hide a deep awareness of unstoppable forces always in motion. The tranquil order produced by confident knowledge is shaken.
It undertakes ‘troubling’ the collection by creating cascading scenographic moves, layered further by our re-titling of key works, placing phrases that open up stances to history and time, and annotating certain constructed moments with text films as sub-plots. There is also the enactment of turbulence around a tranquil painting of Vienna city’s open park space, the Prater, with an archive of photographs and moving images culled from fairground, world fairs, anatomical displays, tableaux of the colonised, feared sexualities, and murder. These are parleyed through the silent Viennese sojourn of the Bengali rebel poet Nazrul Islam, with imagined, possible words of a mind that remembers but cannot narrate. His steady gaze disturbs stable sight lines.
The colonial is an epistemic condition by which a complex set of institutions, protocols, and abstractions engulf the world. It is a form of power that hierarchizes and classifies forms of life and their attendant knowledges and histories. This has been injurious and debilitating in so many ways to our habitation of knowledge, our ways of living with each other, both in the human and the non-human world. An unpacking of this form of knowledge has to keep in awareness that it shares some of its characteristics with other forms of systems of subjugation: the upholding of the caste system through varied philosophies and cosmologies is one pertinent example.
These are epistemic and dispositional confrontations.
SAM: The exhibition is an invitation to a ‘discontinuous temporal relay of breaks and detours’ from the Academy’s art collection that includes paintings, graphic prints, and plaster casts. Further, the exhibition’s spatial design is a cadence of multiple scenes with each scene bringing together a combination of works from the collection and the field of contemporary art globally. Can you speak about how the works embodying multiple temporalities and histories are aligned in the design of the exhibition?
RMC:The exhibition presents itself in scenes; each scene is its own setting for ‘discontinuous temporal relays’, for breaking time. This generates a proliferation. There is a contagion of flies, a roaring of wild boars, the patience of donkeys, the refusal of an eel lurking by the edge of a saintly toe in the collection’s greatest asset, the Hieronymus Bosch triptych of The Last Judgement.
So, as you can see, the same work – Bosch’s triptych - is evoked at different points in the exhibition in different trajectories. In Scene 2, it came as a clue to the seismic always just below the visible infrastructure. Here, in Scene 9 it becomes a means to invoke the famous Viennese - Sigmund Freud’s - lifelong quest to unravel the mystery of sex from the time that he was a young adult in Trieste. The placement of a surveillance camera sending a live feed of the eel to a monitor placed next to a text-film by us enquiring after Freud and the eel constitutes a circuit between the varying temporal anchorages of Bosch (16th century), Freud (late 19th century), and our question today (21st century).
This stratigraphy of works brings a visitor into a relationship with the contagion and cross-currents between different forms, different times, time-scales, and sensibilities. The shape of time is continually reconfigured, and one is invited to enjoy this movement of time through an un-chronology and through displaced hierarchies.
SAM: The long halls of the Academy facilitate accidental reflection of video images in oil paintings and photographic prints in vitrines. How did you engage with these unexpected juxtapositions?
RMC:They are not unexpected. They are welcomed, intensified, and they call for – and acknowledge - entanglements. When one encounters the decapitated figurine of justice with its head at its feet, its fragility is enveloped with refusals, anguished calling, and dismemberment that surrounds it through the presence of broken bodies in plaster cast replicas, and which thus come to layer it. Nearby, on a screen that searches for a new epistemology of being together - from the Haitian revolution of the early 19th century in the work by Abhishek Hazra - we see intermittently reflected - from the work of Arun Vijai Mathavan - the mortuary technician's deep sense and knowing of deformed justice. In fact, not just with reflecting surfaces, other surfaces too—such as mesh screens and foggy fabric interruptions —create overlapping images, obscure clarities. The material of the plinths for the plaster cast sculptures are such that they yield to their weight and evoke a sense of their being body. SPLICE, in their scene of flowers, create a floor and vitrines that are in the geometry of an exploded glasshouse, as much as an exploded flower.
With the lockdown in 2020-21, and travel restrictions, our research for the exhibition remained at a distance but found multiple prongs - reading the architectural plans of the space, examining excel sheet inventories of works, going through what felt like an uncountable number of images, and reading documents. Laying out the exhibition was a gradual process, and the scenographic method allowed for thinking the space through a series of compressions and decompressions. This allowed elasticity, and a dialogue with the space in a webbed, mediated, interlinked way.
There is a particular moment where a work by us, a hologram of a sculptured hollow imperial robe, appears in the corner of the eye while you stand in front of a death mask of the 18th century Viennese from Africa, Angelo Soliman, who morphed from the ‘royal Moor’, to the ‘noble Moor’, to the ‘physiognomic Moor’- who in his life was admired and fêted but turned into a specimen upon his death. We find his shadow has grown long over the years, and haunts the present Vienna’s view of its own past. We worked towards an ocular co-presence of the hologram with the death mask; it is a sensation, a feeling, and a trigger for thought that still surprises us.
SAM: How did the artists respond to your curatorial prompt and placement of their works in the exhibition?
RMC:In early 2021 we were in an online group discussion initiated by an architecture practice in The Netherlands. There we heard a narration of an hour-long happening, in 2013, in the stripped-down royal museum of art heritage in Antwerp. We have known the artist, Nico Docx, for a few years now, and we continued the conversation with him. He was able to locate in his archive the footage and photographs of that evening. Together they expose the infrastructure of a museum. Due to renovation, master works lie displaced and wrapped in plastic, and this evacuated landscape spoke directly to the moment of thought that we were inviting people to begin in, in Hungry for Time – that we must first understand that any museum is first infrastructure. Conversations nest other conversations, and this infects exhibition making. And when we saw Jaret Vadera’s short video work speculating on a UFO hovering in the sky, it came as a perfect annotation to these images of upturned valuables of a museum. There’s a premonition in the works, an alien time that enters and disrupts easy moves towards a ‘stable time’ of a remembered past.
Our invitation to the Discursive Justice Ensemble and to the artist duo SPLICE was to enter into the collection and stage two scenarios. We began by suggesting works from the collection, and a preliminary stenographic possibility to both. With DJE, we shared a painting by Michael Wutky of a volcano, and to SPLICE, we offered drawings of tulips. What emerged over the next months were details and interstices in the collection, driven by their intellectual propensities and curiosities. They activated the presence of (the few) women artists in the collection, brought out stories of witches, viral infections, read in feminist biology, sought out condition reports, found documents of risks and assets, and collaborated further with other collectives.
Contemporary works in Hungry for Time change the perimeter and temperature of temporal horizons and pressures. They call in not only other ways of looking and thinking, but also landscapes and defiance: the reverberating burial ground (Ali Cherri), the untamed boomerang (Dr. Ryan Presley), the machinic head of the Empire (Lavanya Mani), the hardening line of European borders (Kiluanji Kia Henda), reclaiming the sexual body (NilbarGüreş), and pulping domineering texts to begin anew (Rajshree Goody). These are just some of the ways.
SAM: Almost two decades after Okwui Enwezor'sDocumenta 11 that disseminated a post-colonial constellation in contemporary art, how do you see the field's radical transition towards a decolonial discourse, both within the cultural institutions of Global North and South?
RMC: Documenta 11 sensed a radical rupture and transformation in the world and searched within art for both a diagnosis and a prognosis. It committed itself to redrawing and decentering the intellectual sites of knowledge production, moved the attention of the art world and art institutions to unacknowledged places and experiments. Okwui Enwezor understood the world in ferment and trusted art to give insight and invent protocols of thinking and living the ferment.
In 2014 Okwui re-initiated a long durée conversation with us, which led to the making of Coronation Park in Giardini for Venice Biennale 2015. He and us, both, saw this work as a move towards revisiting the imperial and colonial epistemic orders and fantasies that linger and possess the thinking in and narration of the world today. He was insistent and excited about the scale of the work. He would have been excited in 2020 when the streets in many parts of the world, and especially the US, UK, and Canada ignited with and relayed the dismantling of statues of imperial and conquering powers that began in South Africa in 2015.
The de-colonial moment is a complex manoeuvre. It is a moment where a new equality of “episteme” is being searched, especially since the pressure of climate change makes us all sceptical of progress, unlimited growth, and of the politico-technological apparatus serving this paradigm. However, it is also being mobilised by the elites of the South to validate repugnant forms of social hierarchies and exclusions.
This moment is a moment that cannot be bypassed culturally by institutions, unlike with the anti-colonial surge of 1940s. So much knowledge has been produced over the last 70s years, and the dense intersections, flows, entanglements, asymmetrical borrowings, disguises of sources are all now in public deliberation. In Hungry for Time, we ask questions about the export of policing to all parts of the world, the deformed travel of justice, the phantasmagorical fear of contagions, the dismantling of theories of hierarchies, the unpacking of vitrines that stay as undergrowth of imperial classification of life, the absurdity of power’s self-image, among many other. Some of these we draw from the wisdom of post-colonial insights, rage, and anguish; and some are freshly arrived at with the force of the short decade that is unfolding right now, rapidly.
The exhibition ‘Hungry for Time’ by Raqs Media Collective is on view until January 30, 2022, at the Academy of Fine Arts, Austria, Vienna.